Saturday, January 26, 2013

Returning to Exalted's Dragonblooded: The Platypus Reads Part CCVIII

So, another volume from White Wolf's Age of Sorrows appeared on the shelves of the local used book store.  I loved role playing in this particular world all through grad school and thoughts on the Exalted core rule book can be found here and here.  That said, I have a few preliminary thoughts upon beginning Dragon-Blooded.

Dragon-Blooded presents the rules and background necessary for playing one of the Dragon-Blooded, the race of demi-gods that controls much of Creation through the Realm, a sort of mythical Chinese Empire.  My wife and I happen to be reading Johnathan D. Spence's God's Chinese Son right now, and studying late Qing China has only increased my appreciation for the depth and detail of The Age of Sorrow's Dragon-Blooded and their Realm (In fact, one of Spence's other works, Treason by the Book, appears as recommended reading in the Eclipse Caste booklet).  In fact, I can imagine using Spence's account of the Taiping rebellion with very little tweaking to create an awesome Solar Exalted campaign.  Which brings me to an interesting point: the Dragon-Blooded are the "bad guys" of the Exalted core rule book and its Solar-as-normative world.  There, we are cautioned that the Dragon-Blooded aren't inherently evil, just that their rule has become corrupt and oppressive and that they were originally meant to serve the Solars, not usurp their place.  One can hear echoes here of Chinese dynastic history: "the iniquity of Shang is full; Heaven commands me to destroy it." Dragon-Blooded turns the tables by presenting the good that the Realm has done, acknowledging its present iniquity and decline, and challenging the player to potentially find a solution from within without the need for age-ending devastation.  Note, we aren't saying that the "bad guys" are the "good guys," but merely following Tolkien in understanding that in real life "there are orcs on both sides."

Now this leads me to an odd observation.  I've played Solar characters and I've run a Dragon-Blooded campaign.  I've also watched an Abyssal campaign prepped and talked a bit with its Storyteller while the game was in progress.  I've also played alongside a pair of Lunars and seen how their world works and taken a peep into Sidereals.  Of all the exalts, I still have to say that my favorite are the Dragon-Blooded.  Maybe I'm a tool of the man.  I don't think I quite qualify as a reactionary, or is that just because I know a few monarchists and perhaps a "ceasaropapist" or two and happen to be to the left of them.  I don't know.  Still, somehow I find myself connecting more with the brilliant remnant trying to revive the current order than the the self-serving nihilists, revolutionary reformers, philosophical anarchists, just-keep-your-head-downers, or illuminati.  I think I still would have felt that way as a teenager.  Existential angst aside, I think this is the real brilliance of White Wolf's Age of Sorrows: that there is a place in the game for just about anybody.  Whatever your personality, background, or philosophy, The Age of Sorrows has a way for you to fit in, a race that can serve as an entree into their sub-creation.  The idea of multiple point of access into an imagined world is not unique to White Wolf, but I think it is a key to success in this particular line of products and for other companies as well.  

That's all I've got for now.  New thoughts may arise with continued reading and, if they do, you can be sure I'll be posting them right here at The Platypus of Truth. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Brideshead Revisisted: The Platypus Reads Part CCVII

John Knowles A Separate Peace played an instrumental part in helping me understand my high school experience growing up in rural Southern Connecticut.  It's an odd book, but it got into the leaf-mold of my mind.  I think I've only read it twice.  Anyhow, I didn't encounter anything with quite that peculiar flavor for over a decade.  Then, two summers ago, my wife and I were reading for a summer book club.  On the list were Gilead, Hannah Coulter, and Brideshead Revisisted.  I often struggle with the approved cannon of Twentieth (and now twenty-first) Century Lit.  The feel is always something akin to an endlessly boring tea party where over-dressed adults drone on and on about themselves and never really hear what anyone else is saying.  Of course that means that I get to be late to the party when it comes to such geniuses as T.S. Eliot.  So, seeing this book club as a chance to extend my tastes, I plunged in.  While Gilead and Hannah Coulter were obviously excellent, I couldn't get into sympathy with either of them.  Brideshead Revisited, a book by an author who was dead, English, and Catholic (as opposed to living, American, and Protestant) instantly captured my attention.  Now, a year and a half or two later, my wife and I are watching the BBC television production of Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece and both thoroughly enjoying it.

I don't know that Brideshead Revisited has helped to sort my college and post-college experience in the same way that Knowles' book did for my teenage years.  Still, there are some powerful resonances there that have left the same sort of mark.  I spent a semester up at Oxford, and was moved by the familiar buildings and landmarks in the BBC production.  Though I didn't grow up in '30s England, I did grow up in the country side among wealthy, cultured, and privileged folk.  How do you explain what it means to someone to really have a dining room?  -or that there's a difference between a living room/parlor and a family room or den?  Have you ever sat on the couch while the picture of your great grandfather from the First World War looked back from its solemn place on the piano?  Do your memories of growing up include your father in black tie fastening cuff links and your mother with that dress that she'll only wear once?  Those questions don't give the right impression.  What does?  Well, somehow, Waugh's book does.  It's a world away in more than just time and place, but there's still that Je ne sais qua that rings true for me.  I love the image of Aloysius the teddy bear sitting in the driver's seat of Lord Sebastian's car.  There's that awkward sense of meeting your friends' parents or taking your friends home to meet yours.  We've all sat round the polished dining room table and felt like kings of the world -what does it matter if our names aren't Sebastian, Julia, or "Bridey?"  Then the days come when you find out what it means that Death is also in Arcadia.  The years begin to pile up, friends make choices that seem strange and rapidly become inexplicable to one another.  A wedding or a chance meeting can bring you almost to tears just to spend four hours in the presence of those who know because they were there.  Then, following Father Brown, there comes that familiar "tug" and you realize that all this time there was a much larger force at work.  For He also is in Arcadia.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Joseph Pearce's "Tolkien: A Celebration": The Platypus Reads Part CCVI

Some time ago I voiced my concern that Tom Shippey's personal convictions may cause him to over-emphasize the more Pagan (in an historical sense) and despairing strands in Tolkien's work at the expense of the dominant Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, elements.  I then had to admit that, not being a Catholic, there are places at the core of Tolkien's work from which I am also excluded.  That set me to thinking: how might I be warping Tolkien to fit my own beliefs and how can I correct that?  The answer seemed obvious: find works by Catholic writers on Tolkien.  At the top of that list then came Stratford Caldecott's Secret Fire (recently re-released as The Power of the Ring), Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth, and Tolkien: A CelebrationTolkien: A Celebration being the first to find its way into the used bookstore, I began with it.

Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: A Celebration, is a series of essays unearthed by the author in the process of writing his other work Tolkien: Man and Myth (Pearce does contribute one excellent essay to the collection).  Many, but not all, of the authors are Roman Catholics.  Those that are do a wonderful job of helping to situate Tolkien in terms of Catholic doctrine, Catholic culture, and modern Catholic literature.  Providing an interesting counter-point is vanilla-flavored-American-Evangelical writer Stephen R. Lawhead.  The only disappointment in the collection (and it's slight) are the essays by Walter Hooper who's always a bit too interested in C.S. Lewis to be as helpful as he could be.  Nonetheless, even these produce a few worthy gems.

Tolkien, responding to the literary-criticism fad that was popular in his day, warned against the idea that to know an author's biography was to know his work.  He did admit, however, that his own work flowed out of his unique background, professional specialty, and faith.  While The Lord of the Rings could not be reduced to Tolkien's individual history and beliefs, he did view those things as the "leaf-mold" from which it grew and by which it was nourished.  Thus, finding that certain things were prominent in the "leaf-mold" helps us understand better why the tree has grown to be way it is.  A differently nourished tree would have a different shape -or might even have withered.  Still, a heated argument with the gardener over the merits of peat, sunshine, and tap-water doesn't mean that we can't still enjoy the way the light plays on the leaves.   

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

George MacDonald's "Lilith": The Platypus Reads Part CCV

This Christmas season's "wintry read" has been George MacDonald's Lilith.  Written as part of the grieving process for MacDonald's dead daughter, the whole book is suffused with a cold, quiet, strangeness that pairs well with the waning of the year.  It's no small tribute to the eeriness of the work that H.P. Lovecraft singled it out as one of the landmark achievements in the development of the "weird tale."  Paying the book equal homage from the other side of the pond, C.S. Lewis contributed a brilliant forward to one of the reprints (W.H. Auden has the honor of another).  Though I could compare the mesmeric effects of the work to Lovecraft's Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath, which owes even more to Lord Dunsany, I'd like to focus in on Lilith's legacy to C.S. Lewis.

Lewis quite openly referred to George MacDonald as his master and claimed that there was some direct borrowing form MacDonald in everything he wrote.  This comes as little wonder since Lewis credits MacDonald's Phantastes with "baptizing" his imagination and thus enabling him to receive the gospel as an adult.  On this read-through of Lilith, I think I have detected several lewisian borrowings that pay homage to Lewis' spiritual master:

1.) The doorway to another world disguised as a mundane object in an abandoned room of an old mansion.  The mirror in Mr. Vane's attic that leads to the World of the Seven Dimensions functions in much the same way as the Wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

2.) The Trilema (Lord, Liar, Lunatic) is presented as a heuristic for extraordinary claims of other worlds by both Mr. Vane in Lilith and Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

3.) In both Lilith and The Magician's Nephew an evil witch is brought from our world (though Jadis is originally from Charn) into another world where she enslaves the inhabitants and alters the natural landscape (taking away all the water and making it always winter and never Christmas respectively).

Those are the three that stick out most prominently in my mind right now.  Can you add any others?